Credit: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego
UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla greets students as they move into campus housing for the fall quarter.

With several University of California campuses welcoming back students this week for the start of the fall quarter, UC San Diego is rolling out the most aggressive, multi-pronged strategy to reopen.

Seven of the university system’s nine undergraduate campuses are on the quarter system and resumed classes this week. Each campus is taking a different approach to the start of the quarter. Some, including UCLA, are bringing virtually no students back to campus except for those who rely on campus housing for a safe place to live. 

On the other end of the spectrum is UC San Diego. About 11,000 students, including about 7,500 undergraduates, are expected to live on campus more than any other campus in the system. Before the coronavirus pandemic, up to 16,000 students would live on campus. UC San Diego’s strategy to mitigate the spread of coronavirus includes mass Covid-19 testing, contact tracing, wastewater testing and Bluetooth technology that will alert students if they have been exposed to the virus. 

UC Irvine and UC Davis are also welcoming back thousands of students to their campuses and have their own plans that include frequent Covid-19 testing of all students. Those campuses and UC San Diego each have access to their own hospitals and healthcare networks, giving them a major resource advantage.

Chip Schooley, one of the leaders in developing UC San Diego’s reopening plan, noted that the virus “isn’t going to go away” anytime soon. 

“The sooner we get onto it with all the resources we can bring to the table and learn how to cope with it, the sooner we’re going be able to get us back to getting businesses open and getting all the schools open and doing the things that we were doing before Covid came,” said Schooley, who is also a professor of medicine at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine. And if we just wait until next semester, next semester, next semester, pretty soon it’s 2023, and we’re in the same boat.”

UCLA, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside are also starting classes this week but have opted against bringing many students back to campus, saying it is not safe to do so. Those universities are limiting on-campus housing only to students with special circumstances. That could include students who don’t have alternative housing options or students whose home residences don’t have the infrastructure to support remote learning. 

Across the country, there have been Covid-19 outbreaks at several universities that have allowed significant numbers of students to return to campus, including at least two in California: Chico State and San Diego State.

UC San Diego, UC Irvine and UC Davis expect they will avoid that fate and instead resemble something closer to UC Berkeley, where Covid-19 infection rates have stayed low since about 2,000 students moved into campus housing in August.

The three universities will rely on their own academic health centers — UC San Diego Health, UC Irvine Health and UC Davis Health — to facilitate Covid-19 testing across the campuses. Doctors and scientists from those centers also provide the campuses with an extra layer of “knowledge and expertise,” Schooley said.

“There’s no question that we have more options at our disposal to deal with the epidemic,” he said.

UCLA also has its own healthcare network, but strict county guidelines in Los Angeles prevented that university from inviting many students back to campus.

Even with thousands of students living at Davis, Irvine and San Diego, very few in-person classes will be held. About 7% of UC San Diego’s undergraduate courses will be held face-to-face. Schooley said decisions about which classes to hold in-person were left to faculty and that the university could accommodate more classes being held face-to-face if more faculty had wanted to teach in person.

At UC Davis and UC Irvine, an even smaller number of in-person courses will be offered: about 30 undergraduate courses at Davis and about 15 at Irvine. During a typical quarter, those universities would offer thousands of face-to-face classes.

About 5,000 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students are living on campus at UC Irvine this fall down from about 14,000 total students in a normal quarter. At UC Davis, about 2,500 students are living on campus this quarter, about 20% of normal capacity.

Campus leaders said they felt it was important to allow students back on campus this fall so they could get as normal of a college experience as possible.

“It could be that the student may not have the best home life, and they wanted to come to campus where they could focus, put greater focus on their remote classes,” said Mike Sheehan, the associate vice-chancellor for housing and dining at UC Davis. “Or it’s that they just really wanted to get out of the house and get away from mom and dad and be on campus.” 

That was the attraction for Misha Seifi, a junior at UC San Diego who is living on campus. Seifi spent the last three years in community college at Irvine Valley College and didn’t want to miss her chance to experience campus life at a four-year university, even with the many restrictions that are in place.

“I’ll only really get this experience during my undergrad,” Seifi said. “That’s basically the only reason. I just wanted to try to be independent because I’ve never moved out.”

Testing plans

Covid-19 testing plans vary from campus to campus.

At UC Davis students and staff are tested once a week and administrators expect to soon expand that to twice a week. UC Irvine is testing students once a week. At UC Riverside, where only about 900 students are living on campus, students living in dorms are being tested twice per week. 

UC San Diego is testing less frequently twice per month but the results of those tests are available to students at a quicker rate than tests at other campuses. The average turnaround time for test results is 18 hours, said Angela Scioscia, the director of student health and wellbeing at the campus. 

At UC Davis and UC Irvine, it can take up to 72 hours for students to get their results. At UC Riverside, test results are available within 24 to 48 hours, said Tom Smith, interim provost for that campus. UC Davis and UC Riverside are both planning to use saliva-based tests, while Irvine is using nasal tests.

Credit: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

A staff member at UC San Diego tests a student for the coronavirus at the university’s drive-through testing site.

Matthew Swida, a student living on campus this quarter at UC San Diego, said he received his negative Covid-19 test result on the same day that the test was administered to him. He called that encouraging and said he feels safe being on campus. “I feel like there are a lot of procedures in place and it seems fine to me,” he said.

Campus leaders said the quick turnaround times will give them a better chance to detect a positive case before it spreads. They also have the capacity to test more frequently if they think it’s necessary. And if a student needs an extra test, they will be able to get tested, Sciosia said. 

“We would never withhold a test because, say, we tested you three days ago. No, we will retest,” she said. 

Multi-faceted strategy includes Bluetooth software

Along with testing and encouraging practices like wearing masks and distancing, UC San Diego has additional measures in place to supplement those plans.

Students and staff have the option of downloading software created by Google and Apple that uses Bluetooth technology to alert individuals if they are exposed to the virus. UC San Diego is piloting the software in California, and if it proves effective, the state could choose to expand the technology to everyone throughout the state. 

When a student tests positive for the virus at UC San Diego, a staff member from the university’s testing site will give that individual a six-digit key. If the student has the Bluetooth software installed on their phone, they can enter that key. It will then notify anyone who also has the software and was within six feet of that person for at least 15 minutes. 

Downloading the software is optional, but the university is encouraging students and staff to use it, because the more people who use the software, the more effective it will be. Christopher Longhurst, the chief information officer at UC San Diego Health, said he hopes at least 50% of the campus population will use the software. So far, a total of about 11,000 students and staff at UC San Diego have downloaded the app.

Longhurst said the technology protects student privacy. When a student enters a key into their phone to indicate they tested positive, that information is not shared with Apple, Google, the state or other individuals on campus. 

The software is meant to augment traditional contact tracing, which Longhurst noted has limitations.

“Contact tracing is easy when it comes to people you live with, significant others and close friends that you’ve been around. It’s the people in the restaurant, the bar, the grocery store, whose names you don’t know but that you might’ve been in close contact with. Those are the people that we need to not only contact, but contact quickly before they spread it to more people,” Longhurst said.

UC San Diego is also testing wastewater from dorms and other buildings on campus, which will further increase the likelihood of identifying coronavirus infections before it spreads. Waste is collected from those places every day and brought to the university’s Knight Lab, where the waste is tested for the virus.

Earlier this fall, before most students were on campus, the lab detected the virus in waste from Revelle College, one of seven residential colleges on the campus. Students and staff who had been in or near the college were notified within 14 hours and tested for the virus. The university identified two positive cases of the virus and those individuals were asked to self-isolate, preventing further spread. 

Rob Knight, the principal investigator of the Knight Lab, said the wastewater testing has the potential of detecting a virus before it would be detected via the traditional saliva or nasal Covid-19 tests.

Between your mouth, your nose and your gut, different people are infected at different times in those different locations. And some people only get an infection in their gut or only get an infection in their nose or in their throat. So we pick up some cases that would be missed with just testing via nasal swab or via saliva,” he said.

Scioscia, the director of student health and wellbeing, said that given all the safety measures and protocols the campus has in place, she’s optimistic that UC San Diego won’t suffer an outbreak of the virus.

“That doesn’t mean we’re expecting we will never see a student who will have an infection on campus or that the virus won’t be picked up. We are not overly confident because I think we have great respect for this virus, but we have some strong tools to monitor and respond very quickly,” she said.

Another advantage for UC San Diego, Schooley said, is the weather. Experts have warned that the United States could see a spike in coronavirus cases this fall during colder months.

But unlike in places where temperatures will drop and force people to congregate indoors, it will stay warm in San Diego throughout the fall quarter.

“It’ll be a lot worse to be somewhere like Detroit than in San Diego, because it’s just harder to not be indoors with a mask off with other people when it’s snowing outside,” he said.

‘Comfortable that we can contain anything’

To at least some degree, the success of UC San Diego’s reopening will rely on student behavior. Seifi, the transfer student, said she doesn’t necessarily trust her peers to follow physical distancing rules and other safety protocols.

Seifi said she plans to limit her contact to her three suitemates, who she said she can trust to be responsible.

“When you’re young, you want to go to parties and stuff like that. I only trust a few people who I know are safe,” she said.

Credit: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

UC San Diego students move into their dorms. Students had to wear masks and were limited to two friends or family members to help them move in.

Seifi isn’t the only one concerned about a possible turn for the worse with so many students on campus. In an open letter to campus administrators earlier this month, a group of about 600 students, faculty and staff called for all in-person classes to be canceled and for dorms to be limited to students who have no other viable living options. 

They pointed out in the letter that at some universities across the country, such as University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame, bringing students back to campus sparked coronavirus outbreaks. 

“To imagine that UCSD will be an exception to this rule is both arrogant and negligent. The resulting community spread will do irreparable harm both to the UCSD community and to the San Diego community at large,” they wrote.

Schooley, said he understands the concerns of those students and faculty, but “didn’t see it as a reason not to move forward.”

He added that if there are positive cases anywhere on campus, the university has done enough planning that it will be able to manage and contain the virus.

“We have a system set up that we hope has enough redundancy to give us early signs if we need to pivot. If we start seeing a cluster of cases in a dorm because of wastewater, we can deal with students in that dorm,” he said. “We’re not going to be in a situation where all of a sudden we find ourselves with a thousand cases and don’t know what to do. We feel pretty comfortable that we can contain anything.”

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  1. Michael Orso 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Michael, do you plan to regularly post about San Diego schools? As San Diego residents, we would love updates about the school’s strategies regarding COVID. We look forward to hearing more from you. Our two kids may potentially be students within a few years.

  2. Mallory 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    These kids packing MTS buses (150 express and 201/202 superloop) will most definitely cause community outbreaks because windows on these buses don’t open. Didn’t matter pre-pandemic but in Covid-19 times it’s a death trap on wheels. And no amount of hand sanitizer will save us. I can’t afford an N-95 respirator so I’m genuinely scared. I guess people like me who cannot drive and depend on public transit don’t deserve to survive ... we … Read More

    These kids packing MTS buses (150 express and 201/202 superloop) will most definitely cause community outbreaks because windows on these buses don’t open. Didn’t matter pre-pandemic but in Covid-19 times it’s a death trap on wheels. And no amount of hand sanitizer will save us.

    I can’t afford an N-95 respirator so I’m genuinely scared. I guess people like me who cannot drive and depend on public transit don’t deserve to survive … we must be sacrificed for the sake of stupid reopening so that the college kids can party on.